Gia Ji

Blending painstaking traditional techniques with contemporary designs, Thao Vu’s Kilomet109 is bringing new ideas to the world of fashion.

I met Thao Vu for the first time at Kilomet109 boutique on Xuan Dieu Street in Hanoi. Located in Tay Ho,  an area with a large Western population, Kilomet109 struck me immediately with its purely Vietnamese designs that integrate folk essences of centuries ago. Designs in natural fabrics such as linen, silk and cotton were characterized by a multilayered look, such as four- or seven-flap tunics worn by quan họ folk singers.

Other patterns bore slight resemblance to the áo dài of imperial Hue, and even surprisingly coarse linen tunics of signature batik patterns from the highlands. I felt as though I were in an essentially Vietnamese sphere where traditional costumes loomed large behind contemporary perspectives. It shaped my first impression of Kilomet109 and was also what Thao Vu, designer of the boutique, passionately talked of during her design journey. She told me she was experimenting to work with craftsmen in traditional craft villages across both lowlands and highlands to instill a new design thinking without losing the core of their traditional techniques.

These experiments earned her the Creative Young Entrepreneur Award in Fashion 2014 (YCE) hosted by the British Council on the basis of authentic cultural preservation, ecological fashion manifesto and responsibility to the community.

Thao Vu’s collections, which at first blush may look quite contemporary, engage us with lingering historical anecdote. For instance, “Commence,” a 2016 collection by Kilomet109, is an array of different ideas from traditional attires of the Vietnamese such as loose robes or three- or seven-flap tunics. In addition, signature traditional Vietnamese materials are used, including processed linen of the Hmong in the Northern Highlands. An elaborate process is undertaken of softening coarse flax fiber, spinning and weaving it, and then dyeing it with indigo multiple times to result in a rich, dark tone. Van silk rolls by craftsmen in the Northern Delta weaving village in Hanoi are also used, with old and new decorative patterns that are tapered and carefully woven on the surface to transform themselves from different angles.

The collection “Seeds” resulted from Thao Vu’s trip to Cao Bang to work with Nung An craftsmen and directly undertake all steps from dying to old fashioned weaving, from batik printing to other decorative patterns. While “Commence” used elements of the ancient culture of the lowlands, “Seeds” focuses on decorative details derived a wide range of traditional costumes of ethnic minorities across the Northern Highlands. Details such as buttons on the collar hems of Thai women’s tunics, side hemlines on Nung men’s shirts, batik prints on Dao Tien skirts or dense color mixes of the Lo Lo are added to strike special connections between wearers and designs, applications and decorations and old and new.

All the technical steps and materials in designs by Thao Vu are characterized by ecological fashion rules, which are quite new even at a global scale. Because of the manual craftsmanship involved, Thao Vu jokingly calls her creations “slow fashion.” But slow craftsmanship doesn’t mean old-fashioned or out-of-date; it stands as contemporary couture in fashion capitals, because the level of craftsmanship highlights a true personal essence and original values. As more Vietnamese designers and craftsmen are committed to experimenting  with traditional techniques, they will be capable of creating environmentally friendly contemporary fashion items. Brands such as Kilomet 109 will continue to soar higher and farther.